Outgoing HSBC chairman advises successor not to be constrained by company traditions

Douglas Flint is set to step down as head of the bank after seven years at the helm

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 7:01am

HSBC’s outgoing chairman, Douglas Flint, has advised his successor to be respectful of the company’s traditions but not to be constrained by them, as the bank’s business has been “more agile and efficient” after years of restructuring.

Flint, who will step down by the end of this month after seven years at the helm, will be succeeded by AIA Group’s former chief executive Mark Tucker, reflecting the first time the post has gone to a candidate external to HSBC. One of Tucker’s first priorities will be to find a replacement for HSBC’s outgoing chief executive Stuart Gulliver, who planned to step down next year.

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Speaking on the sidelines of a trade symposium in London last week, Flint described HSBC as “an extraordinary organisation” and said “it has been the proudest moment” in his career to chair it.

Flint was trained as an accountant, and became HSBC’s group finance director in 1995.

During his 22 years at the bank, it has witnessed multiple crises including the Asian and Russian financial crises in the late 1990s, as well as the United States’ subprime mortgage crisis that broke out in 2007.

Be respectful of the tradition of this organisation but don’t be constrained by it
Douglas Flint

But Flint believes those storms had helped the bank to become “stronger and more resilient”.

“If you hadn’t had those experiences, it would be like getting flu for the first time and not having any antibodies in your systems to deal with it ... One of the biggest causes of failure in a corporations is a period of uninterrupted success,” he said.

In May, Flint said adapting to new technology will be among the major challenges ahead for the bank, as he urged his successor to familiarise himself with HSBC’s corporate culture before drawing up future plans.

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Asked if he has any more advise for Tucker, Flint said: “The one piece of advice I guess I’d like to give everyone coming into an organisation like HSBC ... is ‘be respectful of the tradition of this organisation but don’t be constrained by it’.”

“The organisation has been around for 152 years and has evolved, and it has evolved by taking the best of its history and adapting that to changing societal norms,” he added.

In 2011, months after Flint took the helm, HSBC announced that its pre-tax profits more than doubled to US$19 billion in 2010. However, in February this year, it only posted a pre-tax profits for 2016 of US$7.11 billion, down 62.3 per cent compared with 2015.

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In 2012, HSBC also paid US$1.9 billion to settle money laundering violations with US regulators, while in 2015, HSBC was stricken by reports on the tax-dodging activities of its Swiss private bank.

Asked if he had any regrets, Flint said: “There are things in our history that you say: it would have been better if that hadn’t happened. But it’s very easy to look back with the benefit of the knowledge you have now, and say I wouldn’t have done that ... It’s very dangerous to live you life in hindsight.”

Flint declined to comment on whether, under Tucker’s chairmanship, an internal candidate would be preferred to succeed Gulliver.

“The preference is to find the best person,” he said. “The internal candidate obviously has the advantage of knowing a great deal more about the organisation ... the external candidate would need to bring something extra-special to be considered.”